By Steven Seidenberg


RAW ArT Press
January 2014


Reviewed by Forrest Roth


We know well our authors who have always been willing to share their ample testament to the inherent burdens of creating narrative beyond craft considerations, unappreciative audiences and critics, or good old-fashioned writer's block. And other writers in turn have likely been eager to learn from these testaments so that they can help themselves see the necessary trepidation which sometimes precedes composing narrative. Beginning with the first cyclical, anonymous exasperations of Steven Seidenberg's Itch, the reader may be reminded of cases such as Jane Bowles and her anguished demands at the linguistic level, akin to, as she put it, chiseling words into marble (as perhaps opposed to what she perceived as the effortless methodology of husband Paul). A story can be a torturous experience before the writer would recognize the story itself.

Drawing upon this same fear, the ever-present threat of language's failure to find its mark—one that will be faithfully preserved for all readers—suffuses the continuous dilemma in Itch. Seidenberg's narrator seeks form from utter formlessness. Instead of the threads of a discernible story being fleshed out before our eyes, however, the narrator soon unleashes an extended treatise as an interior monologue in segments, a larger deliberation upon narrative language with its (im)possibilities, dead ends, and chances: "If it appears I have a purpose that's unwittingly concealed by my advancement towards fulfillment—towards arrival in the form I will uphold—then it's arguably best for me leave off leaving off with it, and forthwith leave off leaving off with it for good." This "leaving off" becomes the figurative chisel that Itch wields, suspended permanently in mid-air by its narrator's sense of lexical precision over play, and an obsession with the classic riddle of a writer's abandon to give the world shape in words alone.

Itch, as a direct challenge to itself and any readers to remain with its narrator until an unforeseeable end, is a literary pragmatist's delight. Its deictic wanderings in fragments start and hesitate, retreating into frequent (and unclosed) ellipses that often are never clarified or explained until some gain can be made. Seidenberg's narrator persistently attempts to begin a story, only to realize an endless agony of the circumlocution of pre-writing, trying to scratch the "itch" of a creative impulse forever haggling with a conscious use of language while, at the same time, including its reader in the deliberations. At one early point, Seidenberg even cleverly allows his readers a generous sort of reprieve from the growing anti-narrative ("Go ahead, then. I'll wait. I have no place else to go. And if, alas, you don't return, then let this vow of patience prove the fondest of farewells..."), then chiding their return from the text's redacted blankness to his apparently pointless endeavor at hand ("You're back. Satisfied? I can't imagine").

As a philosophical work in an aphoristic style reminiscent of E. M. Cioran, Itch rewards in ways better taken piecemeal—as its deceptively absent structure suggests—rather than as an empirical working-out towards its narrative "arrival." In this light, Itch is a realized documentation of a writer's working-in step by step ("One begins with being in...with being inside something [...] but one's attempts to reach back to the sense before all objects [...] pose something of the quandary I find myself in now"). This process almost arbitrarily digresses into fundamentals regarding referents ("How can one begin to speak of what one can't refer to?"), totality ("What I felt was not a singular, nor a succession of singulars, but a singular immersion in a series..."), starting points ("One must presume a stepping point to start from [...] a footing from which every proffered certainty ascends"), and endings ("The tale I tell is fairly forged a preface to the tale I will tell when I'm finished"). The narrator, for every attempt and recoil, appears at times to make some progress towards commencing a story, only to find another groundswell, still wondering what constitutes narrative writing while he keeps propelling onward with a hundred concerns.

For those who do resist this narrator's numerous opportunities to slip past himself, Itch is a worthy supplement to the post-modern conversation about how the paralysis of self-conscious writing must be navigated to reach that great creative optimism and its stirrings, reflected in the final segments as an "impulse" found to "locate the itch" and "move toward the world." Seidenberg's narrator, to be sure, will prove all-too familiar to writers who hover over every aspect of their prose, though his charged, pensive voice may also remain detached enough as to not completely frighten away the initiated when holding them entranced in the book's continuous meanwhile.